April in The Philippines: Island Hopping Like the Swallows

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El Nido literally means “The Swallow,” in reference to the many creatures inhabiting the limestone cliffs. I read in an inflight magazine that harvesting their nests for birds nest soup is still a thriving industry. But for now, I was far more interested in the tourism side of things.

We headed out on the island hopping tour on one of those eponymous outrigger boats. The first stop was Small Lagoon, nestled within a circle of limestone cliffs. It was a popular spot…

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… especially for canoeing.

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It was accessed through a little gap in the cliffs and made for a natural sheltered swimming pool. The bottom was nothing but pure white sand and the sides of the cliffs had interesting little creatures to stare at. Freediving a few metres down, I saw a moray eel and some shyer tropical fish. In the main part of the lagoon, there were plenty of white jellyfish. These didn’t sting and it was fun holding the squidgy mass in my hands. There was also a little cave at one end of the lagoon. As I squeezed through the little entrance I saw a shaft of light lighting up the centre of the dark cave. It was beautiful.

We moved on over the clear water that ranged from deep blue to azure to green and shades of pale jade according to the depth of the water. Contrasting with the sand that was so white I had to squint at it in the sun, this was the colour sea is meant to be. I soon gave up thinking up new names for the shades of blue and sat back simply enjoying the view.

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Next up was Big Lagoon, simply a sheltered area of otherwise open sea surrounded by several limestone outcrops. It was beautiful like the rest of the lagoons in El Nido, but not particularly special as the snorkelling was marred by the dynamite holes in the coral.

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Next, we pulled up at this secluded beachlet.

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The boat was simply driven up onto the beach as the fine sand didn’t seem to be capable of doing much harm to the hull.

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Here there were many purple jellyfish, again harmless. They were quite large and often got washed up onto the beach to perish in the heat.

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While the tourists frolicked in the shallows, the boat crew busied themselves with lunch. Here they took barbecue to a fuss-free level. Back in Singapore, it normally takes at least an hour and lots of paraphernalia to get the fire started and at least another hour before there’s the hope of getting any decently cooked food at all. In El Nido, the fire was started with just a few sticks of charcoal, a dash of lighter fluid, some dry twigs taken from the beach and one match.

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Soon after the fire was started and got going, the fish was set on the grill…

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… and lunch was ready in a jiffy. I timed it: only 30 minutes! And what a delicious meal it was! Freshly grilled fish adorned with soy sauce and lime, plus cabbage salad dressed with vinegar, was such a treat on the beach.

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After lunch one of the guides took me out snorkelling. The water was amazingly clear and the coral beautiful. He brought me up to a giant white stinging jellyfish and showed me how to stroke the top without getting stung. Cute and quite fun!

Then on to Secret Lagoon, a pool of water completely surrounded by cliffs and entered by a hole at the side. It felt pretty much like a cave without a ceiling. It was quite strange that this place was dry during low tide as all the water drained out then.

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Our last stop was Seven Commandos Beach, the significance of which was lost to me. I liked the water more than the beach and ended up chatting with the boat crew most of the time there.

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They soon busied themselves with coconut leaves. Doing what, I wasn’t sure.

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But soon it was apparent. They fashioned little animals out of the coconut leaves. I got a bird…

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… a fish…

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… and a grasshopper. It was very imaginative and skillful work, fitting mementos to end the lovely day.

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August in China: Xian the Grey

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The overnight train journey to Xian was rather uneventful. I took a middle bunk in a hard sleeper carriage and went to sleep after slurping up the pot of instant noodles I bought at the train station. When I awoke, Xian greeted me in an embrace of grey smog.

I met up with my parents who’d flown in from Shanghai. We started out viewing the few sights in the drab city. The first was the Big Goose Pagoda, apparently built by Journey to the West’s Xuan Zhang for the precious sutras he brought back.

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Next, we cabbed it to the Small Goose Pagoda where we climbed up an endless flight of stairs to reach the top. The 15 storeys seemed like they would never end as we circled up and up. Unfortunately, the view was so awful and underwhelming that I didn’t even bother snapping a photo.

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The rest of the grounds made up for it. There was a lovely garden with ivy-covered archways and a rather impressive museum too. It made a pleasant diversion for the parents in the afternoon and a good break from my usual frenetic pace.

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One thing that perked up the greyness of Xian was how domestic tourists loved to play dress up in the squares. At first I thought there was lots of bridal photography happening that day, but it turned out to be Victorian damsels and Tang dynasty maidens on a fun day out in Xian.

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The main thing that made up for the drabness of the city was its food. Xian, being at the beginning of the ancient Silk Route, has lots of Muslim and Central Asian influence in its food. Here, the cuisine is dominated more by wheat and bread than rice and noodles. There is a large Muslim population and pork is far less common in this area.

I apologise for the poor quality pictures as I was too taken by the food to take any shots of the really good stuff. Below you’ll see the stall selling what looked like pulled pork burgers. The filling is made of waxed beef, wind-dried in lots of fat and similar to how Cantonese lup cheong (sausage) and lup ngap (waxed duck) are made. It’s then stewed and pulled, then slapped into white disks of dense wheat bread. It’s greasy and salty and I’m sure it’ll hit the spot just right as a late night snack.

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There were also some misses of course. Something I just couldn’t understand was the ma hua porridge locals seemed to love for breakfast. Now I really dig the ma hua in Tianjin and Chongqing: the curls of sweet deep-fried sesame dough are so addictive because they are so crunchy and moreish. When they soak it in water and boil it into a kind of salty porridge with starch, I really don’t understand. Note that the picture below shows me before I tried it.

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I just didn’t get the lumps of soggy greasy dough sitting in a starchy goo topped with crispy fried bits and lots of pepper. It seemed like an exercise in incorporating as many types of wheat as possible into the dish without resorting to bread or noodles. Bizarre. Even more bizarre is how they save on washing up by wrapping the bowls in plastic bags first, then slopping the brew into it.

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If you’re at the Muslim Quarter, do try out the fabulous barbecue restaurants. You can either order from the menu of pick from the spread outside. I loved the perfectly charred bits of anise-flavoured lamb skewers and the same done with whole fish.

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I loved the various types of rose-flavoured desserts. There was one called jing zi gao (mirror cake) made of steamed rice flour with rose and red bean filling. It’s a bit like kueh tutu, except miles better. Another one is like a cross between a tangyuan and a donut: glutinous rice dough filled with rose-flavoured red bean┬ápaste and then deep-fried. Amazing stuff. No pictures because I gobbled it all up before remembering I had a camera. Next trip maybe.